Two Stories at Once: Finding the Resonant Truths

Technique? I can teach that in a writing workshop. What’s tougher to teach—really, I can only extend an invitation—is the ability to think and to feel in terms of opposites, to know, as Thomas Mann said, “A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a truth.” If you’re paying attention, life will teach you that. My father was a gruff man, a man of temper. During my rebellious teenage years, we clashed. We said vile things. Sometimes we shoved at each other. My kind and timid mother endured it all. She didn’t deserve the ugliness we brought into [...]

By |2019-09-30T07:27:10-04:00September 30th, 2019|Blog|6 Comments

What Would You Do?

A week or so ago, in those idle few minutes before I was to leave my office to teach a workshop. I picked up my copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and reacquainted myself with “On the Rainy River.” Is it a short story, an essay, or something else? The question is irrelevant because, no matter what we call it, we’re left with the same narrative, the story of a young boy named Tim O’Brien, who, after being drafted during the Vietnam War, drives north in Minnesota as far as he can before getting a cabin at the [...]

By |2019-09-23T08:20:42-04:00September 23rd, 2019|Uncategorized|2 Comments

What Were They Thinking?

As fiction writers, we make decisions about how close we want the reader to be to our main characters’ thoughts. Sometimes the point of view is very distant as it is when we’re reporting our characters’ actions or their histories or describing their landscapes. Take, for example, the opening lines of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”: The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. . . . The American and the girl with him [...]

By |2019-09-16T07:12:15-04:00September 16th, 2019|Blog|2 Comments

Following the Trouble to Its End

When I run on a treadmill at the Y on the weekends, the television in front of me is often showing a program, which I believe may be called Dr. Chris Pet Vet. It’s a show about pets in need of care for one reason or the other. The owners bring their pets to Dr. Chris, and during the course of the show he gives them the diagnoses, discusses his suggested treatment, and then performs it. Along the way, the show stresses that the treatment will be tricky and there’s no guarantee that it will be successful, but of course [...]

By |2019-09-09T08:08:11-04:00September 9th, 2019|Uncategorized|4 Comments

A Teacher Who Took the Time

This week I re-watched the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, because I wanted to see my former teacher, Lucy Gabbard, the woman who had such an effect on me when I was first an undergraduate and then a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University. She’s billed as “Flat Tire Lady” in this film because she’s one of the women in need of assistance when a tire goes flat and Bill Murray comes to the rescue. She has a line of dialogue in a later scene when she thanks Murray at a community gathering. Just to see her sweet smile and [...]

By |2019-09-02T08:06:21-04:00September 2nd, 2019|Blog|2 Comments

Courage, Confidence, Curiosity: Writing the First Draft

My neighbor, Uwe, likes to walk. I mean, really walk. Five, seven, ten miles—it’s nothing for him, and he’s a little shy of 75 years old. Sometimes he’s on the treadmill next to mine at the local YMCA where I run five miles every other day, but I know he likes to get out on the trails at a nearby park and nature preserve. Another neighbor, Tim, often accompanies him on Sunday mornings. So last night, at a backyard gathering, Uwe confirmed that Tim would indeed join him this morning. Then Uwe asked me if I’d like to come along. [...]

By |2019-08-26T07:47:39-04:00August 26th, 2019|Blog|2 Comments

Being Good Stewards of Our Gifts: Advice for Writers and the Writing We Do

I just got back from Vermont yesterday, which explains the lateness of this weekly post. I was teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference along with many of my favorite colleagues. (By the way, this conference, at least to my way of thinking, is one of the very best.) This morning, one of those colleagues, Dinty Moore, posted this quote from Jane Kenyon: “Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as [...]

By |2019-08-19T12:29:46-04:00August 19th, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

Taming the Shaggy Beast: Letting Your Novel Write Itself

The laconic comedian, Stephen Wright, once said, “I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.” Now there’s a man determined to tame the shaggy beast, as Henry James called the novel form. I don’t know about you, but I think I’d prefer a few more practical strategies for getting the job done than just imagining you’ve gotten to the end by putting the numbers on blank pages. So with that in mind, let’s start with the notion that our novels all exist, fully formed, in a pre-vocabulary state, and are just waiting for us to find the words [...]

By |2019-08-11T16:00:35-04:00August 11th, 2019|Uncategorized|0 Comments

“Whatcha Doin’?”: Surviving a Writer’s Dry Season

I came back from teaching in the Miami of Ohio low-residency MFA program yesterday and found we’re still in the middle of a dry season here in Columbus. The lawns are brown and crunchy, and, truth be told, it depresses me to see them that way. Even those who are watering, or have irrigation systems, are having a hard time keeping up. The landscape makes me think of things ending, and not in that pretty, crisp-air, autumn sort of way. This dryness calls to mind a dormant land and a fallow period, one that suggests that things just might not [...]

By |2019-08-05T07:23:59-04:00August 5th, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

Teaching and Revising

I’m leading a fiction workshop this week—a good warmup for another academic year about to begin—and it occurs to me that the way I approach the discussion about a manuscript may offer a useful scheme for those interested in strategies for revising a first draft. My custom is to first consider—and to invite my workshop participants to consider—what the draft seems to be interested in.  What are its obsessions? To what does it devote the most space? What lies at its heart? Answering such questions inevitability leads to an articulation of the center of the piece. Such intimate knowledge is [...]

By |2019-07-29T08:51:10-04:00July 29th, 2019|Blog|4 Comments